In the alley behind a bar, five teenaged boys stood in an awkward crescent.
"You have to wait until Jail Break's walking off. Then you can come in and set up. Make it quick, they won't care if you're out of tune as long as it's loud and fast." The bouncer hesitated, and cast a doubtful glance at the boy clutching an angular honey-stained guitar. Dark hair flopped around his face in the freezing wind off Yokosuka Bay. His eyes were huge, darting around as his face slacked and tensed.
The bouncer hummed, considering. He peered at the boy and tried to meet his eyes in the darkness of the alley. "You'll be fine."
He went back inside, shaking his head at the assault of sound. Jail Break's singer might go somewhere eventually, but he wouldn't bet on the rest of the band getting beyond sailor bars like this.
The small audience cheered and Jail Break stumbled offstage. The bouncer peered out to check the crowd. A few young ladies with their tits hanging out saw the curtain move and screamed the singer's name, but nobody was trying to climb up and follow them. He pulled back again.
The next band filed in from the back door, weaving through stacks of equipment. The bouncer turned to eye them up and down. That guitarist still looked like he'd be off in the corner puking any minute now. He sighed and held the curtain aside, waving them through. The boy he'd been watching was last, and froze up at seeing the crowd, just as he had expected. He reached out a hand, not surprised when the boy jumped. "Come here. Give that to your friend, he can set up for you." The bouncer caught the other guitarist's eye across the stage and hooked a finger at him.
Two minutes and three shots later, he pressed a guiding hand to the boy's back and held aside the curtain again. "Take deep breaths. You'll find that once you start playing, it's a lot easier to be standing up there. You'll be fine, okay? Fine."
The boy heaved in air and nodded, sniffling, eyes still watering from the sting of bourbon.
"Go on. Wait, what did you call yourselves? We've got to announce something."
"Uh - Saber Tiger."
The bouncer nodded and shoved him on stage.
On a pay phone in the corner of the night's post-live hangout, Hide watched his bandmates with envy as they did yet another round of shots without him. "I thought you were going to be able to go tonight," his girlfriend said over the phone, and he winced.
"Yeah. So did I, but then Kyo got us this gig, and... I'm sorry. I did manage to leave you a message this time, at least?" He tried to inject that with perky charm, but it had to have fallen flat since Reiko didn't reply. He couldn't blame her, really. She kept planning these "real dates," and he kept having something come up. Same old bullshit, but since he was staying at her place now...
"I'll take you out to dinner tomorrow," Hide said. "It's our anniversary, isn't it?"
A long silence, then, "You remembered." Reiko's voice was soft, barely audible over the noise in the bar, and he suspected tears.
"Yeah." He turned red, and had to look around and double-check that nobody'd heard, even if there wasn't that much to hear. There was a long-haired guy leaning on the wall a few feet away who was kind of looking at him, and he looked familiar, too, but... "Well, after last year - I think I'd rather keep my dick where it is, thanks."
"Ha. It's true."
He grinned into the phone. "I'll see you later. Sleep well."
"Mmm... fine. I love you."
"Yeah, um," Hide looked around again, "love you too." He hung up, lip twisting a little in reprimand to himself. What to do, what to do... he turned toward the bar, preparing to dive back in to the crowd.
"Err... Hide-kun, right?"
"Huh?" He looked over and found the long-haired guy at his elbow. Hadn't even heard him walk up. "Yeah, actually."
"I'm Yoshiki from X." The man pulled off a pair of giant black sunglasses and shook back his fluffy light hair, holding out a hand.
Hide stared at him for a long moment. Then he blinked back to the present, stared at the hand, and finally stuck out his own to grasp Yoshiki's for a couple hesitant shakes. "It's been a while since I've done that, sorry. Yeah, that's right, I've seen you. I like that song..." He tried to think, slapping himself into public mode.
"I'll Kill You? Stop Bloody Rain?" Yoshiki smiled at him.
"Stab Me in the Back, I think it's called?"
Yoshiki's grin lit up his face and Hide was returning it before his mind could catch up, the sight putting an odd warmth in his chest. The man looked like a thrilled puppy, bouncing on his toes and yanking at Hide's sleeve. "Come drink with us!"
Hide made a helpless gesture toward his band, but was carried along to sit in the X encampment. They'd pulled a dozen chairs around a table for four so far, and Yoshiki dispatched Toshi to find two more after throwing names around so quickly Hide didn't catch more than two - Taiji, who he already knew in passing, and Toshi, whose former chair he was urged into by Yoshiki. Who then sat in Hide's lap with a laugh and a flip of his hair. "You don't mind, do you?"
"Well, um. No?" Odd, but he didn't.
Yoshiki kept talking and he listened, made comments where they seemed to be wanted. It was interesting to see an act like his at such close range. This guy seemed unconscious of everything but himself, carrying on like he knew he'd be loved and listened to by everyone he met... but that had to be part of his gimmick, nobody could honestly be that...
"Well? Hide-kun?" Yoshiki had an expectant smile and Hide re-ran the last line. At least his memory was cooperating tonight.
"I'm committed to Saver Tiger. But I'd love to jam with you guys, and if I give up on them - yeah, I'll give you a call or something, why not?"
"Good." Yoshiki's smile lost a tiny edge that Hide hadn't realized was there before, and he felt Yoshiki relax a hair against his arm.
Why? I'm just me...
Toshi returned with chairs and a waitress bearing a tray of shots, to the appreciation of the group. He beamed and set the chairs beside Yoshiki and Hide, patting Yoshiki's shoulder and pointing at one.
Yoshiki shook his head and Toshi looked confused.
"Go ahead," Yoshiki told him, "Sit down!" Toshi only looked more confused at this, leaning around to get a glimpse of Hide's face.
Hide met his eyes with a shrug. Hey, he'd just met the guy, how the fuck should he know?
Five shots and three beers later, he broke loose from Yoshiki and company long enough to weave his way around to the rest of Saver Tiger.
Kyo raised an eyebrow at him.
"Keep it shut," Hide snarled. "Look, I guess I... I guess I'm gonna go with these guys, I dunno, I'll see you all at practice tomorrow..."
"You got a new girlfriend or what?" Nick said, tapping one of his rings against a beer can, all innocence.
Hide looked at him.
"Well? We were wondering, you know. She looks kinda cute from here. Long hair's always - " The new bassist, Toki, elbowed Nick and he stopped talking with a shrug. Still tapping on the beer can.
"He's X's drummer and I don't know why he insisted on sitting in my lap. But he did. Insist, that is. Not a girlfriend. No."
Nick opened his mouth, and Hide said, "Before you say something about me protesting too much, think about how pissed I am at you already for fucking up the same song in the same place for the third live in a row."
Nick cleared his throat, still not meeting his eyes. "Congratulations on stringing words together so well and so quickly, too." Toki put both hands on Hide's shoulders. "I was just going to say that, well, I quit. And if he's not a chick, then you're - " Kyo elbowed Nick in the gut, bringing a merciful end to the can-tapping. Nick straightened, catching his breath, and Kyo suggested that he might leave now.
The combined hold of Toki and Kyo kept Hide from diving after Nick and starting a fight. "Look, why don't you go back to those nice X fellas now? Good riddance, right? Come on," Kyo soothed, holding a shot of Old Crow toward him, "it's your favorite! Drink up and just go back over there, now, there's a good boy."
Kyo was a nutcase, and a flamboyant one at that, but at least he could more-or-less sing. Punching him in the jaw equalled a bad idea even to a piss-drunk Hide, who rolled his eyes and took the shot.
"I thought maybe you weren't coming back," Yoshiki laughed into his ear a minute later.
Hide tried to ignore the prickle down his neck and mumbled, "So where are we going again?"
"My place." Yoshiki tugged his hand and Hide followed, keeping his eyes down to watch his skinny legs in their black vinyl walk down the steps. They stopped at a van.
"You aren't going to kill me and chop up my body to throw in the bay, are you?"
"No, no." Yoshiki snickered at him, and held the door open.
Taiji was already inside, leaning on the window. He cracked an eye open as Hide landed on the seat beside him with a little bounce and an, "Oops!"
"Hey," Taiji said, and smiled a little.
Hide nodded. He could still feel the anger just under the surface, but - at least for now, it seemed like his rational self was well in the driver's seat. Not bad.
The sun was well up by the time Toshi pulled the van around by Hide's work. He hadn't had time to go home first, and was wearing one of Yoshiki's shirts.
"You know, uh - " Toshi fumbled with the keys at the wheel and turned the van off.
"Hmm?" Hide yawned and lifted his head from the window.
"Yoshiki... he's... he seems like a really nice guy, doesn't he? Really... cute."
"Um. I guess? Yeah?" Hide hazarded. He patted down his hair, then his clothes, checking that everything was good and he was at least passable for work.
"It's okay, you can be honest."
"...okay." Still only half paying attention, he found his cigarettes in his boot, gave a happy yelp and pulled one out. "Got a lighter in here?"
"Yeah, here." Toshi handed it over. "But Yoshiki - "
"Yoshiki seems like one thing and he's another thousand underneath, is that what you're trying to say? Got it."
"Something like that."
"Thank you." Hide smiled at him, and meant it, too. "Are you regretting it?"
"What would you have done, otherwise?" Hide retied his boot, after settling the cigarettes in the pocket of his borrowed shirt.
"I wanted to be a doctor."
"Huh. So did I, actually." Hide considered that. "Instead you got co-opted to partake in Yoshiki's grand vision, huh?"
"Something like that." Toshi laughed a little. "You're still drunk, aren't you?"
"Completely snockered." Hide flashed him a grin. "Lucky for me, they don't mind, long as I'm not late. Speaking of which..."
"Oh, you have ten minutes still."
"Why the hell'd Yoshiki tell me I only had fifteen and you lived fourteen minutes away, then?"
Toshi's sympathetic smile told the tale.
"And he's curled right back up and snoring now, too, isn't he?"
"Usually, since he was up all the night before writing, and doesn't have a job." Toshi shrugged, and smiled again. It seemed like nothing would crack that thing off from over his granite chin. Hide caught himself staring at it and looked down.
"So it's your lot in life to be his provider and voice slave until his dream is realized, huh?"
"Well, I wouldn't - er..." Toshi eyed the smirk on Hide's face. "I suppose you could say that, but I made the decision."
"We are the choices we make," Hide murmured.
"Some people believe in fate and some people believe in themselves." Hide hopped out the door. "So, we are our path, or we are the choices we make. I've always leaned toward the former, but who knows. I could be convinced." He slammed the door, waving at Toshi, who waved back.
"-so I was wondering, are you staying here tonight after the live or moving on already?"
Hide turned from his attempts to catch the bartender's attention and nearly poked an eye out on a hard pouf of bleached hair. His eyes fell on fluttering eyelashes so overburdened with mascara that they looked more like short black sticks of incense than anything human.
He jerked away without thinking and she leaned closer. She'd had balls to follow him into a place like this, all right, but...
"Sorry, babe." He scrambled up from the stool, ignoring her pout but feeling guilty anyway. Even if she was only after an autograph and a chat, she was still too close, trapping him against the wooden bar. He felt her breath on his arm and it sent cold prickles down his spine. He hadn't had a drink yet, wasn't even awake -
Hide's body trembled before he forced himself into control. "I have to go, I'm really sorry." He pushed the stool back and forced his way through on the other side before she could say anything more.
The bar was crowded with suits doing business over lunch and drinks. Hide slid around one group and their laughter didn't drown out a few comments about his hair, his big square sunglasses. He ignored them and stretched his arm out to catch the heavy door before it closed behind two coming in.
Outside, Hide took a deep breath of thick summer air. He looked around. Cloudy grey light over a normal street, everyone ignoring him as if he too were normal. He spotted another bar down the street.
This was one of the bad days. He'd felt it when he woke up, recognized the tremble in his fingers and shiver in his gut. He'd tried calling Reiko. Talking to her would usually help, at least enough to get him up and in something like order until it was time for the live. She hadn't answered, though. So here he was barhopping at eleven in the morning.
He always had to have a couple drinks before going out on stage, then a couple more before going out to say the right things to the right people. Half of getting anywhere was who you were friends with, everyone knew that. He fucking hated it but he knew he could do it. After a couple drinks.
On days like this, he'd stand backstage shaking so hard that he had to have a couple drinks before he could unpack his guitar. But it was worth it. Even the worst lives were always worth it for the rush.
He stepped into the new bar and spotted someone with long hair and sunglasses just like his, sitting way back in a dark corner. Go figure, right? He picked up a glass of Old Crow and an amaretto sour at the bar and strolled over to join Yoshiki.
"Hey." He slid the drink across the table and took a seat.
Yoshiki looked up, surprised. "Oh. Hey."
"Don't worry. I don't have to talk about anything."
"Good." Yoshiki went back to his reading.
Hide smiled at the bent head and felt oddly at peace.
Hide came home to a note.
This wasn't unusual. "Home" was still Reiko's apartment and she still had the same job that she'd had when they met, at the nursing home a couple blocks away. She needed her sleep and a regular schedule.
And a regular guy, but that's... her choice.
He picked up the note. Read it.
Well, it seemed that she'd remade her choice.
"Why now?" he wondered to himself, flipping on a lamp so as not to stumble over anything and wake her.
Sony, too, had remade their choice of a year ago after the way Vanishing Vision had sold. X would be a major band in a few months. She knew that. He'd told her last night.
And took away her last illusion that you'd ever become a regular guy with a regular job - even if it was as a hairdresser.
He guessed he couldn't blame her for not wanting to deal with her boyfriend the rock idol when she'd signed on with - and supported for almost three years, don't forget that, Hide - a guy who played in a band that probably wasn't really going anywhere. A guy who, at the end of the night, she could have for herself.
If X continued the way they were going, whoever he was in a relationship with from now on would never truly have him to herself.
He shuffled into the bedroom. It wasn't the time for this, but - "Thank you for loving me," he said.
She rolled over slowly, eyes open and glinting in the light from the door. "It wasn't exactly tough."
"Sure." He heard the choke in his voice, tried to laugh. It came out all wrong.
She sighed and sat up. Opened her arms to him just like always, pulled him down beside her regardless of his street clothes and smell of smoke and being a general mess.
"I think it's better for you this way, too. You don't have to tear yourself in half now."
"I wasn't - "
"Okay, how does this sound? I don't have to pretend I didn't hear anything when you have wet dreams about guys in your band."
She patted his nose, kissed him. "I'm kidding."
"Good." He settled down into her arms. One last time.
"It was only once."
"Oh no," he groaned, "I wish you hadn't told me... no..."
She laughed and pushed the door shut. Then she began to tug off his jacket.
"One more round?"
"Sure, why not," Hide murmured.
It was more teary than hot, but it had always been good between them. The last time was no exception.